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Rays meet with Pinellas Commission

CLEARWATER, Florida -- Five days after the Tampa Bay Rays told Hillsborough County Commissioners that Major League Baseball has "lost faith" in the region, the team's top brass told Pinellas County Commissioners that a new stadium would restore the league's confidence.

The Rays, in their first face-to-face meeting with Pinellas commissioners in years, also encouraged them to help break the stadium stalemate with St. Petersburg, which has a contract with the Rays at Tropicana Field through 2027.

TIMELINE: Rays Stadium Saga

Shadow of the Stadium

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and most of the city council attended the meeting as well, and heard the Rays disclose for the first time the scant number of St. Pete residents who buy season tickets.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg told commissioners that fewer than 300 St. Pete residents have season-ticket accounts, accounting for just shy of 1,000 season tickets.  Sternberg pointed out a lack of business support in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay's fourth-biggest business center.

Sternberg mentioned North St. Pete's Carillon/Gateway region, Tampa's Westshore, and Tampa's downtown as more viable locations, indicating a new stadium in the right place could draw 30,000 fans a game.

Yet when asked by 10 News after the meeting why he wouldn't accept Mayor Bill Foster's invitation to discuss an advanced proposal at Carillon, Sternberg repeated his three-year-old mantra that he wouldn't consider any sites until he can consider all sites, including Hillsborough County sites.

10 News also questioned Sternberg about the likelihood of drawing 30,000 fans regularly when several playoff teams with new stadiums failed to draw 30,000 fans per game this year.

"I believe in baseball," Sternberg responded, before looking for the next question.

The Rays spent much of Tuesday's hour-long presentation echoing last week's presentation to Hillsborough County commissioners, focusing on the team's commitment to community projects and the on-field product, despite sagging attendance.

"Attendance," Sternberg told commissioners, "it's just not up to snuff."

Rays president Matt Silverman addressed the suggestion made last week by Hillsborough commissioner Victor Crist that the team may have sandbagged its marketing budget in recent years.

"We spend millions of dollars a year marketing the team," Silverman said.  "If marketing could determine attendance (alone), we'd be drawing 2.5 million fans annually."

Rays Vice President Michael Kalt, brought on during the team's failed 2007-08 bid for a new stadium, explained the challenge of competing in the Tampa Bay market.  Kalt highlighted the remote location of Tropicana Field, which has more than 40% fewer fans within a 30-minute commute of the stadium than the next-closest MLB team (Pittsburgh).

"Putting aside age of the building and the roof (which doesn't retract)," Kalt said, "we have a fundamental location problem, and it's one we didn't realize was quite as acute as it is."

Kalt told commissioners that St. Petersburg could recoup much of its investment by tearing down Tropicana Field and redeveloping the land once a new stadium is built.

"There is a huge opportunity cost (for prolonging the stalemate), Kalt said.  "Keeping us handcuffed to the Trop, it's not doing anything for the taxpayers and people of St. Pete."

TIMELINE: Rays Stadium Saga

Shadow of the Stadium

Sternberg tempered expectations that a new stadium might guarantee a winner, but said new revenues would help.

"We're not going to be able to continue (our success), even with a $150 million payroll," Sternberg said.  "You can't guarantee this kind of success.  But it helps to stack the deck."

He reiterated Major League Baseball's frustrations with the stadium situation and said he was more patient than league executives.

"Time is not a friend of ours, for inaction," Sternberg said.  "Right now, (the situation) is completely in my hands.  But Major League Baseball is taking an interest."

Sternberg did not mention the specter of contraction, as he did last Thursday in Tampa.  But he repeated how disappointed he was in the region's rejection of the 2008 stadium on St. Petersburg's waterfront.

Pinellas Commission Chairman Ken Welch, a St. Petersburg resident, told Sternbeg the opposition wasn't a reflection on the Rays, but the area's protective nature of its waterfront.  Welch pointed to controversy over replacement of the St. Petersburg Pier as evidence.

But Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala was much more sympathetic to the Rays' cause.

"It's embarrassing that you're being treated this way in your community," Latvala told team executives, referencing Mayor Foster's unwillingness to amend the current contract to allow the stadium search to extend into Tampa.

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long asked some of the most pointed questions of Sternberg, bringing up the team's potential for new television revenues.  Sternberg deflected the question, saying television revenues don't make up for the team's low attendance.

Long also asked Sternberg how many fans the Rays needed to draw to succeed with more regularity, eliciting his "30,000" response.

St. Petersburg Council Chair Karl Nurse addressed the team and commission at the end, comparing the Stadium Saga to the ongoing problems in the Middle East.

"How do you get past the stalemate?" Nurse asked rhetorically.  "You take the first step...I would ask the Rays and the city to take the first step, and the step is to look at Carillon."

Mayor Foster, who had to leave the meeting early to meet with executives from the Sweetbay supermarket chain, sent a message through Pinellas Commission Chair Ken Welch.

His message was that his calendar was open this Thursday morning from 7 a.m. to noon and he'd invite Sternberg to meet with him again.  Foster sent a pair of letters to the Rays' owner this fall asking to discuss the Carillon proposal, but Sternberg passed.

10 News asked Sternberg if he would accept this week's invitation, he said, "Maybe, I'll have to check my calendar."

When asked how long he was in town, Sternberg remained coy, simply saying, "A few days."

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.


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